Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet by Andrea Cheng, woodcuts by the author
Absolute details surrounding the life of Dave the Potter are limited and uncertain. What remains of his life story almost two centuries later, is scattered with uncertain words, including ‘sometime,’ ‘about,’ ‘believed to be,’ ‘might,’ ‘possibly,’ and other such noncommittal qualifiers. The few surviving documents prove an enslaved teenager was bought by the Drake family, co-owners of Pottersville Stoneware Manufactory in Edgefield, South Carolina, in whose service he became a talented potter whose creations have survived, in small numbers, and become museum-worthy art pieces.
As if paralleling the sparse details of Dave’s life, Andrea Cheng replicates that sparseness in her slim novel-in-verse; she echoes the poetic etchings Dave added to his pottery by enhancing her verse with etched woodblock prints of her own. The result is a gorgeous, contemplative, artistic memorial to a creative life that survived unspeakable hardship while creating lasting, even subversive, beauty.
Dave’s considerable skill – recognized and lauded … and exploited – cannot save him from the horrors of slavery. His first wife was sold, and later his second wife and her two sons taken from him, as well. He himself is bought and sold within the Drake and related Landrum families. And yet, although literacy is illegal among slaves, Dave is taught to read and write, which enables to etch his name (his objections, his miseries, his screams) into the wet clay and the guarded words he can never say out loud: “horses mules and hogs – / all our cows is in the bogs – / where they will ever stay – / till the buzzards take them away =.”
As much as I’ve appreciated, learned from, and enjoyed Cheng‘s titles over the years (I think I’ve read all but four of her almost two dozen books), this, her latest, is clearly, undoubtedly, most definitely my favorite thus far. Here’s the irony: the subject of Etched in Clay just might be the furthest from her personal experience. Cheng has written numerous books inspired by her Hungarian heritage (Marika, The Lace Dowry, The Bear Makers), although she’s better known for her titles highlighting the Chinese American experience (she’s been part of a hapa Chinese American family since college) including The Key Collection, Shanghai Messenger, Only One Year, and The Year of the Book; Clay is definitely her first, and thus far her only, book with the history of American slavery at its core. So much for ‘write what you know.’ Every so often, talent just trumps all.
Tidbit: In the ending “Author’s Note,” Cheng credits Leonard Todd and his book for adults, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of Slave Potter Dave, for sparking her initial interest in Dave’s story, and later for “helping me so much with this project.” For interested readers, Todd’s website is a treasure trove of further information. The Smithsonian, by the way, owns two of Dave’s pieces (!); click here to see one of his poem jars collected by the National Museum of American History.
Readers: Middle Grade